Exiled Russian aristocrats Count Sergius Karamzin, Captain 3rd Hussars Imperial Russian Army (von Stroheim), and his cousins Her Highnesses - Princess Olga Petchnikoff (George) and Princess Vera Petchnikoff (Busch) live in a villa near Monte Carlo. The princesses are vain, selfish, and mean. Princess Olga gives their maid (Fuller) a painful pinch when the service is inadequate. The egoistic Count, meticulously groomed, a gourmand, and proud of the marksmanship learned in his Russian Army training, is self-assured and imperturbable.
The proud aristocrats make their living by passing counterfeit bills. Cesare Ventucci (Gravina) and his daughter, Marietta (Polo), arrive with the counterfeit money Ventucci has printed. Marietta, sweet and simple-minded, is awed by the aristocrats. Karamzin surveys her and suavely makes up to her.
Meanwhile, a rich American couple Andrew J. Hughes, US Special Envoy to Monaco (Christians), and his wife, Helen (Miss Dupont), arrive by naval ship. The aristocrats, observing their impressive disembarkation, know that the acquaintance of the Americans would quiet any local suspicions about their origins and identities. Princess Olga suggests that Karamzin make up to the wife, a lovely lady whose husband will be otherwise occupied. Karamzin proceeds to the hotel in a carriage, dressed impeccably in his uniform.
Hughes has to leave for business; Helen sits alone on the hotel patio. Karamzin looks her over approvingly. She notes his distinguished appearance. While Karamzin eyes his wife, Hughes attends to his duties at the Monaco Palace, meeting the Prince of Monaco.
Helen is reading a book. Karamzin’s approach is slow, careful. He sits near her on the terrace and has the bellboy page him. Helen notices. Mutual friends greet her and Karamzin. He requests an introduction and kisses her hand. Thus introduced, Karamzin sits down next to Helen who shows him her book, Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim.
Karamzin plans to seduce Helen. The next morning he introduces Hughes and Helen to his cousins, and they all go out for the day. Karamzin demonstrates his marksmanship with live pigeon targets. In the evening, the group goes boating. Hughes is piqued that Karamzin, rather than he, gave flowers to Helen; he is neglectful of these little attentions.
In their suite, Hughes asked Helen if she had a good time. She had a very good time and rather wistfully says that her husband is not like the Count who she finds interesting. Hughes is content that she has been entertained and goes into his separate bedroom.
The Count subtly flatters the foolish wife. Her busy husband does not notice the danger threatening her. The Count and Helen go for a walk; he tells her that his cousins are unable to come along. In a heavy rain, the Count says he is lost. He carries Helen to a boat that slowly sinks, and he carries her ashore. Their dog returns to the Princesses with a note from Karamzin telling them that all is going well. He intends to take Helen to the house of an old hag; reassure her husband. Princess Olga calls Hughes and tells him that his wife is fine, but trapped by the storm that has destroyed roads and bridges.
In the house, Helen takes off her wet clothes and hangs them to dry. Karamzin turns his back, but watches in the reflection of a mirror; he enjoys the view. He sends the old woman to bed and is about to attack Helen when a visitor arrives seeking shelter. Helen is ignorant of his intentions, but the visitor, a Monk, is suspicious. During the night, Karamzin stays away from Helen. At daybreak, the Monk takes her to her hotel on his donkey. He tells her to say that she stayed at an inn. Helen goes to her room and to bed. Later in the morning her husband comes in and kisses her. Hughes is not suspicious and says that Princess Olga had phoned him.
In his villa, Karamzin is having a discussion with the maid, Maruschka. She wants him to marry her as soon as possible and accepts his promise that he will do so.
Karamzin visits Ventucci to collect some of the counterfeit bank notes. Karamzin eyes Marietta. Ventucci says his daughter is weak in her head, and he cares for her. Passing through the poor neighborhood where Ventucci lives, Karamzin covers his nose from the smell of pigs.
Back in his villa soaking his nails, Maruschka again asks Karamzin to marry her. He says he will, but makes an excuse about his unsettled estates in Russia and his lack of funds and living on the charity of his cousins. Maruschka tells him about the money she has been saving for 20 years. They cry together over his poverty, and she gives him her money, and he kisses her hand. Behind her back, Karamzin laughs at her gullibility.
In the evening, gaming tables are set up in the villa. Princess Olga passes the counterfeit bill.
Karamzin invites Helen to his villa. He sends the angered maid away. Hughes, who wants to leave the casino, searches for Helen. Maruschska, hearbroken and miserable, watches as Karamzin plays up to Helen. He tells Helen of his shame for having to ask a woman for assistance; his life and honor are at stake. Helen replies that she would gladly help him. The scene shifts between Karamzin and Helen and the maid brooding in her room. Karamzin says that 90,000 francs is his debt of honor; the choice is money or blood. He pleads that he gave all for his country; his life is in her hands. He gives a knowing smile when Helen, not looking, is getting the money for him. Maruschka is looking, through the keyhole. Karamzin acts remorseful and unhappy to take the money; he cries and kisses Helen’s hand. Maruschska, realizing his utter duplicity, frees her caged bird and sets fire to her rooms. She locks the door to the balcony where Karamzin and Helen are standing and flees.
Despairingly, Mauschka drowns herself.
Meantime, Hughes has returned to the hotel and is startled that Helen is not there. He does not know where she can be.
On the balcony, Helen is screaming. The firemen come with a net, and Karamzin jumps, leaving Helen behind. Hughes arrives and rescues her. Back in their rooms, as Helen recovers, Hughes finds Karamzin’s note asking her to save his life and honor.
Karamzin tells his cousins that he does not know what happened. The fire is out, and the casino games go on. Hughes arrives and strikes Karamzin, knocking him to the floor in front of all the guests. Karamzin demands an apology. Contempuously, Hughes tells him that he is not a man nor a gentleman and lacks honor. He tells Karamzin and his cousins to get out of Monte Carlo. The other guests scorn them and leave.
As the cousins and Karamzin pack, Karamzin decides that he has to have a woman before leaving; he thinks of Ventucci’s daughter. He goes to Ventucci’s house and climbs a tree to Marietta’s room. Inside her room, he closes the shade, but Ventucci has heard him. Angrily, Ventucci attacks and kills Karamzin. He drags the body into the street and shoves it down the sewer.
The cousins are leaving. The police arrive, carrying pictures of the women. They are divested of the trappings of princesses and arrested. Upon being taken into custody, the pair assume their true criminal identities and behaviors.
The foolish wife has realized that her own husband has the nobility she blindly sought in the counterfeit count.
In Foolish Wives, Erich von Stroheim examines sexual intrigue, involving the ruthless seduction and betrayal of innocent women. Stroheim’s officer has no internal limits on the fulfillment of his desires. The fake count pursues two essential conditions: luxurious surroundings and sexual satisfaction. As played by Stroheim, the psychology of the character is fully delineated: egoistic, decadent, cruel, with an insatiable desire for women. The narcissist is meticulous in all external details, his body is supported by a tightly laced corset; his uniform is flawless; his manners are impecable. His life is a performance, he will say or do anything to fulfill his desires. Lacking internal constraints, he attacks and harms weak women without pity. The wife gets away, but Maruschka and Marietta are harmed. The count pays for his cruelties with his death and burial in the sewers he despised.
The American husband, well-to-do, but plain living, honest, loving, and generous, contrasts in every important detail to the fake count. The foolish wife is taken in by the spurious count but ultimately learns the superiority of her husband.
The triangle drama of a dissatisfied wife, obtuse husband, and amoral officer is an extension of Stroheim’s similarly plotted previous film Blind Husbands (1920). Foolish Wives is more complexly plotted than Blind Husbands and follows several subplots involving the officer’s relationships with women. He regards all women as available to him. The wife is beautiful and desirable as a source of money and sex, the maid is gullible and readily available. When no other woman is acessible, he takes what he can get, the impaired daughter of the counterfeiter. The last is one woman too many.
Stroheim examines the responses of women to the sexual lures of attractive, but unscrupulous, men, and concludes that a woman is powerless to defend herself. The wife is saved by her husband, she lacks her own resources, mental or physical, to guard her. The maid kills herself; the raped daughter is avenged.
The plot is daring and quite advanced for 1922. Sexual pursuit and conquest, closely examined with sardonic wit, was not a typical subject of Hollywood movies. Stroheim examines the decadent high life on the continent in precise detail and contrasts European extravagence with American plain living.
Every aspect of the film, from plots and subplots, the actors chosen for each role, their movements and expressions, makeup and costumes, the sets, and the entire mise en scene received painstaking attention from Stroheim. The actors were little known; Stroheim did not want stars. The set, built in the studio as an exact replica of the buildings and promenades of glamorous Monte Carlo, provides a beautiful and sophisticated background. The lighting and the lighting effects were carefully planned for each scene. The seduction scenes are characterized by their complex lighting.
During more than a year of filming, Stroheim shot over 300,000 feet (about 60 hrs) of film. Brimming with detailed ideas, he was unable to restrain himself. Among the many marginal scenes were a complete subplot focusing on the counterfeiter and his daughter, an encounter of Mrs. Hughes and a crippled French soldier, further details about Maruschka, the maid, urchins in the streets, and on and on. The cost was approaching $1,000.000. when the head of production at Universal Studios, Irving Thalberg, finally put an end to it.
The initial editing was undertaken by Stroheim, who worked for six months and produced a film of 21,000 feet (about six hours) in length. The first version eventually released by the studio was about 14,000 feet (3.5 hours) with a five-minute (!) intermission. Reviewing this version, the film critic of the New York Times admired the succession of “dynamic and expressive motion pictures” but declared the film was “too long,” “too detailed to hold attention for so long,” and “wearying to sit through.” For national release, the film was cut by the studio to about 10,000 feet. Further reductions occurred all over the country as local censors demanded the removal of objectionable material.
Foolish Wives was the biggest feature Universal Pictures produced to 1922. The studio labeled the film a Super Jewel Production, its highest ranking for quality and publicized it as the “first million dollar production.” The film helped establish a new image post-World War I of a studio capable of producing prestigious, sophisticated films. The cost was too much; Foolish Wives was not profitable.
In August 1920 an unusual event was reported by Variety. Stroheim and four other men, including a member of an engraving firm and an etcher, were arrested for counterfeiting french francs for feature film production. The Commissioner of the US Government Secret Service held that the law against counterfeiting held for use of currency intended for stage money. Bond was set at $1,000. Presumably a settlement was reached in this bizarre and comical incident. Variety did not print any follow up articles. This episode provides another example of Stroheim’s demands for authenticity in all aspects of the film’s production, right down to printing actual counterfeit money to be passed to his fake aristocrats.
Miss DuPont (1894-1973, also known as Patricia Hannon) had been in films for about three years and was a pretty, but shallow, actress. Perhaps her enigmatic name appealed to Stroheim. In any event, he thought that under his direction she coud play the role as he envisioned it. After Foolish Wives, Universal promoted her as a star. The promotion did not take with the public. A reviewer for Variety characterized her in Raffles (1924) as “colorless and blonde, not that the two go together, but she has both in plenty.” She returned to small roles, as in Mantrap (1926), for example.
Foolish Wives was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of The Library of Congress, 2008. Films selected for preservation are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." The registry Film Essay was written by film critic Daniel Eagan, who writes:
The film fully established Stroheim’s reputation within the industry as a challenging and difficult-to-manage creative genius. Excess was the key to Stroheim’s directing style. His stories revolved around debauched aristocrats, hypocritical nouveau riche, and occasional saintly innocents. The excess continued into the physical details with enormous sets and expensive costumes. Stroheim wanted everything to look real and show off the details. He was not always as well-focused in the construction of scenes: he cut from one shot to another purposely, lingered on insignificant moments, and poorly handled the set-ups in the climactic fire. Stroheim was intransigent in the face of cultural and economic realities. Filming began in July 1920. Eleven months later Stroheim had sixty hours of film without an end in sight. He knew he was taking too long, filming too much, filming objectionable material, but could not stop himself. Filming ended in June 1921 by order of the new head of production at Universal, Irving Thalberg. Stroheim’s edits produced a 30-reel, 6-hour film. A 10-reel film resulted from further editing by the studio and the removal of censored material.
The film has been restored with the original titles, as much as possible, and reassembled with remaining materials to the current length of over two hours.